The National Interest

Counterterrorism in 2011: The Year of Abbottabad

The millennium began with a hijacking of an Indian airliner to Kandahar, Afghanistan. The plot, involving the Pakistani terror group Harakat-ul-Mujahedin, al-Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), was a harbinger of a decade of terror whose epicenter was Pakistan—and this year the trail to high-value target number one, Osama bin Laden, finally ended there.

On a clear night in early May 2011, American Navy commandos found and killed Bin Laden in his hideout in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad. After searching since 1998, the Central Intelligence Agency had finally found the most wanted man in human history. Thorough and careful intelligence analysis had tracked him down to a house in the garrison city that also houses Pakistan’s premier military academy. Abbottabad is just thirty miles north of the country’s capital, Islamabad, and the nearby military-general headquarters in Rawalpindi. It is located on the famous Karakoram Highway, which follows the ancient Silk Road from South Asia over the Himalayas and Hindu Kush to China. In American terms, it was as if Bin Laden were hiding just outside the gate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, an hour’s drive from the White House and the Pentagon.

Abbottabad is named after a British army officer and colonial administrator, Sir James Abbott, who founded the city as a cantonment for the British army in India in January 1853. Abbott fought in the British East India Company’s wars against the Sikhs in the middle of the nineteenth century and was very fond of the city he founded.

The CIA traced Bin Laden there by following the trail of a Pakistani acting as his courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. Al-Kuwaiti had worked with Bin Laden in the planning of the 9/11 attacks and was his trusted emissary for carrying messages to the outside world. A Pakistani Pashtun tribesman who was born and raised in Kuwait and spoke fluent Arabic and Pashto, Al-Kuwaiti could move between two cultures easily. In 2010, the intelligence community traced him to Abbottabad and a three-story housing compound that seemed different from most other homes in the city. It was surrounded by an eighteen-foot-high wall topped with barbed wire, had no electronic signatures (phone or Internet), and seemed custom-built to hide someone. Privacy screens and interior walls obstructed vision into the compound from the outside. The children inside were home schooled, and the residents burned all of their garbage.

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